“In my experience, food and passion always intertwine.
Passion is food for the soul’s mood at any particular time.”
Robert Irvine, host of the Food Network’s Restaurant: Impossible show has some nerve! In an episode which first aired in March, 2014, the tough-talking British mesomorph had the audacity to tell America that Pasion Latin Fusion wasn’t the beautiful, graceful swan with which many of us had fallen in love. Although he didn’t directly call Pasion an ugly duckling paddling about aimlessly, Irvine certainly intimated that things at Pasion weren’t as rosy as some of us may have thought.
The premise of Restaurant: Impossible is that within two days and on a budget of $10,000, Irvine will transform a failing American restaurant with the goal of helping to restore it to profitability and prominence. To make the show entertaining, any existing dysfunction or drama in the restaurant’s day-to-day operations is spotlighted in the fashion of all reality shows. If you’ve ever been to Pasion Latin Fusion, words like failure, dysfunction and drama won’t ever come to mind. Since its launch in 2011, reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, much moreso than reviews for other “failing” restaurants featured on Restaurant: Impossible.
While the Food Network’s preview synopsized the issues at Pasion as “tension between Monica and their main investor, Elvis’s brother, and a menu that’s leaving customers confused and frustrated,” the most obvious revelation when the episode aired is that Elvis, Monica and Orlando Bencomo are extremely likeable and extraordinarily passionate about their restaurant. If the Food Network came to Pasion expecting the dysfunction and drama of a soap opera, they instead got a true feel good story accentuating the love of a beautiful family.
Robert Irvine’s renovation of Pasion was much more than cosmetic though that’s what visitors will notice first. The interior has been wholly transformed from a milieu of dark jumbled gracelessness into a bright, airy and intimate two-level dining room. The menu has also been revamped, both in content and in style. All menu items are now clearly described so there’s no room for confusion. Some eighteen items make up the “bocaditos” section of the menu. Described as “Latin Street Food, served as it’s prepared,” bocaditos are appetizers prepared in the inevitable Chef Elvis manner. There are only six Platos Principales or main courses, but they’re so varied and good you won’t need more.
Pasion Latin Fusion is the brainchild of Elvis and Monica Bencomo, a husband and wife duo with (dare I say it again) passion for the melding of diverse and dynamic Latin flavors. The third in the family triumvirate who own and operate Pasion is Orlando Bencomo, Elvis’s brother and main investor in the restaurant. Orlando, a veteran of Afghanistan, runs the front of the house. If the Food Network exposure gave any of them a big head, you certainly can’t tell.
Elvis is originally from Chihuahua and to say he’s a culinary genius may be a vast understatement. He’s a classically trained chef, but that’s a starting point. The genesis of his culinary creations is his creativity, imagination and willingness to experiment with ingredient and flavor combinations. He’s a true student of the craft, constantly reading and researching what it takes to create the foods that reflect his passion. It’s unlikely he ever studied Peruvian Ceviche 101 at his culinary alma mater, but one bite of his ceviche of the day and you might swear you’re in Peru. His arepas are reminiscent of those prepared in Venezuela, his chimicchuri as good as you’ll find in Argentina. Get the picture?
Monica, the statuesque occasional hostess with the radiant smile is originally from Chicago, but admits to growing up culinarily unadventurous, preferring a diet of burgers and fries to some of the legendary foods of the City of Big Shoulders. Today she’s happy to have broken the chain (my friend Ryan Scott was so proud when he interviewed her on his wonderful radio program) and loves to try new and different dishes. Elvis is more than happy to oblige with a menu unlike any in Albuquerque–one in fact that’s reminiscent of Peruvian and Latin fusion restaurants we’ve visited in San Francisco and Las Vegas.
Together Monica and Elvis have not only made beautiful food together, they actually enjoyed working together when Monica ran the front of the house. When I asked them to pose for a photograph and my camera stalled, Elvis commented that he didn’t mind, he could hold Monica forever. How’s that for passion? When we asked about the high quality of the grapes served with one dessert, they smiled broadly and admitted to have upped their consumption of grapes (along with wine and cheese) after having seen the animated movie Ratatouille. How can you not love that?
Pasion is situated in the Lomas edifice which once housed Capo’s, a long time Albuquerque Italian food fixture. Few remnants of its predecessor remain especially now that Pasion has been renovated. It is at once both festive and romantic, the former bolstered by upbeat salsa music and the latter facilitated by low light. Appropriately the exterior signage includes a single red rose, a symbol for romantic passion. A sole fireplace suspended from the ceiling is both attractive and functional, adding the promise of a crackling flame on a blustery evening. Two tiered seating includes both booths and tables.
The menu is an eye-opening melange of Latin fusion with elements of Cuban, Haitian, Mexican, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Spanish, Mariscos, Argentinian and even New Mexican ingredients used in sundry and creative ways. As with true fusion, menu items have combined those elements–Argentinian chimichurri with Nicaraguan grilled steak, for example. It wouldn’t be a true fusion restaurant if diverse, sometimes disparate culinary traditions, elements and ingredients didn’t form an entirely unique genre. Pasion is a true fusion restaurant, not one which offers menu items from several Latin speaking nations.
Start your Pasion experience with the agua fresca of the day. Many Mexican restaurants throughout the Duke City offer a pretty standard line-up of aguas frescas, typically horchata, limonada, sandia and melon. Many are not made in-house. At Pasion, the agua fresca of the day is not likely going to be the same old, same old you can find elsewhere. Instead Chef Elvis might surprise you with a virgin margarita agua fresca, complete with a salted rim, or he might combine several seemingly disparate flavors to create something uniquely wonderful.
29 March 2014: Bocaditos (appetizers) are similarly non-standard fare, an impressive assemblage of innovative deliciousness. You can make a meal out of the bocaditos. Three per person is what our server advised. One of those bocaditos should be the pasion fruit salsa with chips. In New Mexico, chips and salsa are pretty de rigueur, so much so that it’s a rare salsa which can distinguish itself. The pasion fruit salsa is unique, a combination of piquancy, tropical fragrance and tanginess. It’s a welcome respite from the usual with chips. Now, if you like your salsa to provide the flavor element of pain, this salsa won’t do it, but it does pack enough heat to titillate your tongue.
29 March 2014: Thanks to visits to Peruvian restaurants in San Francisco, Mexican style ceviche (typically made from raw fish marinated in citrus juices and paired with cilantro, onions and chopped tomatoes) has been a source of ho hum for me. In Pasion, my passion for ceviche has been rekindled. The menu offers two standard ceviche offerings. They start off much like other ceviche–as seafood (tuna) marinated in lime, lemon and orange juices. Then the Chef’s creativity takes over, adding jalapeños, ceviche and plenty of oomph. The Fire and Ice, for example, is a ceviche made with tuna, habanero-coconut sauce and passion fruit sorbet served with tortilla chips. The habanero-coconut sauce most assuredly has a pleasantly piquant bite coupled with the tropical sweetness of coconut. The passion fruit sorbet is crystallized so it doesn’t melt messily over the ceviche. Instead, it imparts a refreshing coolness that complements the other ingredients. This is genius!
29 March 2014: In the 1980s, restaurants such as Santa Fe’s Coyote Cafe and the West Beach Cafe in Venice, California started a trend still going strong today when they introduced duck tacos. Being a trend doesn’t equate to being good, however. Unlike so many others, the duck taquitos at Pasion are worth the build-up and hype. They’re, in fact, sensational! There’s only one thing wrong with the three rolled taquitos engorged with pickled vegetables and slow-simmered duck meat seasoned with Caribbean spices topped with yellow and green chile sprinkled with Mexican Cojita cheese. If there are two of you, splitting that third taqito could end up in the type of drama the Food Network would appreciate.
29 March 2014: Pasion’s delicious tribute to the island nation of Cuba is in the form of a Quesadilla Cubano, the sandwich which has become an almost de rigueur offering at restaurants which proffer sandwiches. Most Cubanos have become so similar as to be almost as blasé as the plain ham and cheese on which they are loosely based. At Pasion, the Cubano is an elegant sandwich brimming with delicious ingredients: slow braised pork, ham, Swiss cheese, pickles and whole grain mustard pressed in a hybrid corn-flour tortilla. Bruce Schor, a long-time friend of this blog and erudite epicure gave it the ultimate compliment: “The Cubano for me was very close to the Cubanos I learned to love in Union City NJ, the second largest Cuban expat community after Miami.”
29 March 2014: Absent from the revamped menu are several favorites, but my sense of loss is mitigated by the addition of Caribbean Chicken, the very best I’ve ever had. Caribbean chicken isn’t synonymous with jerk chicken. In fact, Pasion’s Caribbean chicken doesn’t have a piquant punch. Its flavor profile is derived from non-jerk Caribbean adobo spices and from having been wrapped and roasted in banana leaves which seal in freshness and flavor. This is outrageously good chicken–two thighs and two legs. The chicken is served with a white rice and mashed ripe plantain mound, a surprisingly good combination.
18 September 2011: The postres (desserts) menu is a continuation of the menu’s creativity, four items of pure, unbridled temptation. The pastel de queso, a goat cheese style cheesecake with mango caramel, may be the best of the lot. It’s a better goat cheese cheesecake than was ever conjured at Rosemary’s Restaurant in Las Vegas (one of my highest rated restaurants in America before it closed). When it arrives at your table, your first inclination might be to believe the kitchen sent out something else, perhaps a scoop of ice cream drizzled over by Gerber baby food. That “scoop” is a large roundish mound of sweet and savory goat cheese, as good as any chevre dessert you’ll ever have. There’s very little crust to get in the way here. It’s mostly goat cheese cheesecake the way it should be.
18 September 2011: The other of my two passions (aside from green chile cheeseburgers) is bread pudding, a dessert some consider an anachronism. Pasion offers an Aztec Bread Pudding con Cajeta (a reduced goat’s milk caramel) with a hint of red chile that will convert even the most ardent of bread pudding protagonists. This is one of the richest, densest, most flavorful bread puddings in New Mexico, ranking number eight on Larry McGoldrick‘s top ten best bread puddings in New Mexico. What elevates this bread pudding above the rest is the red chile which imparts just a bit of that back-of-your-throat heat great chiles have. It’s not a piquant heat, but that heat is certainly noticeable. The cajeta is the only thing that can and should top this bread pudding.
29 March 2014: Yet a third dessert that might never achieve the sure to be fame and popularity of the aforementioned duo is the Pasion Platano Cake, a banana custard cake topped with passion fruit mousse. It’s rich, sweet and tangy in every bite. The lip-pursing tartness isn’t quite lemon-like, but it’ll excite your mouth more than a handful of pop rocks. Notes of cinnamon and vanilla occasionally sneak the tanginess of the passion fruit and the gentle sweetness of the banana. If it sounds as if there’s a lot going on in this dessert, that’s because there is. There’s a taste adventure in every bite.
Every once in a while, the city’s burgeoning and exciting culinary scene needs an infusion of passion. That’s what you’ll find in Pasion, one of the most creative and unique restaurants to grace the Duke City dining scene in years. It’s the type of restaurant the citizenry should promote to visitors who believe those ill-conceived stereotypes about our cuisine.
Restaurant critics realize that their influence only goes so far in their own hometowns. For years, critics from the Albuquerque Journal, Alibi, Local IQ, Larry’s Albuquerque Food Musings and of course, Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog have been raving about how great Pasion Latin Cuisine is. Over the years, Pasion has earned accolades and honors galore: “Top 5 Chefs of Albuquerque”, “Best Fusion Restaurant”, “Best New Restaurant” and “Best Kid Friendly Restaurant.” Despite all these honors and accolades, Duke City diners haven’t been beating down the doors as they should for a restaurant of this caliber. Robert Irvine’s visit will hopefully bring in new visitors. After one visit, they’ll certainly be back.
Pasion Latin Fusion Restaurant
722 Lomas Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 29 March 2014
1st VISIT: 18 September 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Pastel de Queso, Azteca Bread Pudding con Cajeta, Quesadilla Cubano, Caribbean Chicken, Pasion Platano Cake, Duck Taquitos, Pasion Fruit Salsa